Kate Vargas For The Wolfish & Wandering Little Maniac
First up you notice the voice that has a rasp to it that makes it distinctive and individual. She is a songwriter who has written or co-written all the songs on this her third album. Producer Charles Newman has gathered around her, in a Brooklyn studio, a set of players who don’t play safe with this engaging take on Americana. The percussionist Granville Mullings Jr is central to the sound, using an array of junkyard objects that add a quirkiness to the direction the songs take.
Some songs immediately draw you in like Common Creep, a sharp critique of an aquaintance, with its memorable chorus of “you’re a creep, you’re a creep … just like me” - showing that Vargas doesn’t exclude herself from criticism when considering life, love and logic. But there are many moments on this album that make you realise that Vargas is an artist who is pushing the limits of her personal vision to create music that is not simple or easy but rewards engagement. Her blend of folk orientated storytelling is placed in the middle of a sonic stream that washes over her voice, adding a dream like (or nightmarish) take on her songs that draw on literary sources to create the wolfish world she wanders.
She can strip the song right back to voice and guitar on Madeline (a song about a troubled patient in an asylum). Then Come Join The Show is set into a heavier palate that suits the song’s sense of unease. The songs are drawn from a personal journey that may not reveal their meaning on first listen, but if not then the nature of the setting gives a strong hint of the elemental inspiration behind these tales. Her upbringing in New Mexico undoubtedly influence her sense of intrigue and interest in folklore and supernatural instincts.
Kate Vargas is a performer who is likely to gain a growing audience for her musical stories and her third album is well placed to achieve that. She offers something in her music that is magnetic, menacing and meaningful.
Benjamin Jason Douglas First World Blues Flour Sack Cape
From the get-go it’s easy to fall in love with this album. Sure the comparisons in terms of voice and writing style are pretty obvious and you can name your own names. The music touches on several roots orientated bases but is blended, like an old whisky, into something with a touch of bluesy woodsmoke and nocturnal deadly nightshade. It was distilled by Joe Lekkas and a team of like minded local musicians who understood the mission. Lekkas is also a player here, along with Ryan Dishen on guitar and Erin Nelson on drums. This trio are fronted by Douglas who is very much the big man with the big presence here. He also wrote all the songs on the album aside from Lekkas’ Tchoupitoulas.
The songs are largely life experiences that stem from the personal and the observed. The lyrics are good and worthy of attention. In Raggedy Andy Williams, about a marriage break-up, he tells his other half “you can have the records and the player too, ‘cause I can’t hear them now without thinking of you.” Tentpole has a gospel feel that relates to the teller wanting to be a “tentpole in the big tent revival.” The song opens with the voice of a revivalist preacher before becoming a jaunty, uplifting spiritual (including a verse of Amazing Grace). Walking Down The Grain is a chillin’ tale of the devil taking his Daddy’s hand and walkin’ him down the grain. There is a weight to this song that is palpable in its subtle menace. Lighter, musically, at least is the acoustic Doc Red Blues with guitar and mandolin behind a heartfelt vocal from Douglas. Street Preacher has also a tender heart, as does the album closer Gloria. Both show a more restrained and reflective delivery that work to highlight Douglas’ overall vocal ability and power.
The ten songs on the album sound like they should be part of some atmospheric HBO series, something like Carnivale. The songs are cinematic in both content and in the playing. The four musicians have produced something special that funnily enough is not that far from some successful artists who are currently riding high in the charts. The vocals are slightly grittier but the potential is there. These First World Blues are first class.
Letitia Van Sant Out In The Studs Self Release
The latest album from Baltimore based Letitia Van Sant is a beautifully laid back recording with simple, sparse and effective production by Alex Lacquement that places Van Sant’s voice, itself a versatile instrument, front and centre. Associate producer Don Goodwin also engineered and mixed the album. The songs are all folkish tales other than the one cover, a timely version of Stephen Stills’ protest song For What It’s Worth. Here Dan Ryan plays electric guitar, Dan Samuels plays drums and Lacquement the bass. But again this is an understated performance that makes the point of the song more poignant.
Elsewhere there are contributions from other musicians including guitarist David McKindley-Ward, Patrick McAvinue on upright bass and Laura Wortman adds harmony vocals on a couple of tracks. Overall this a tight knit unit that underplays the songs without ever short changing them in a way similar to the Cowboy Junkies’ production values on their Trinity Sessions album. This album stands alongside that in similarly allowing space in the songs. The lyrics (reproduced in the accompanying booklet) are clear, as is Van Sant’s voice which is able to portray the emotion of the songs without ever over delivering.
Where I’m Bound, the first track on the album, in timeless folk style opens with the lines “As my mother lay dying she called me to her side …” Her mother then advises her to follow the compass of her heart. This is something that Van Sant does through the rest of the album. In The Field she allows that her “soul is a field where her love may grow.” Nature and environment are also underlying influences on her work.
Van Sant was involved in environmental advocacy before she won the Kerrville New Folk Song Writing Competition. Previous winners include Nanci Griffiths and Lucinda Williams, which is a testament to her writing skills. She has released two previous albums (one as part of a band) but in many ways considers this something of a debut. There have been comparisons to Courtney Marie Andrews and certainly that can be seen if one considers Andrew’s earlier work. But Van Sant is quite different in her overall approach at this point. She sings in the title song “Am I wrong to want what I want?” The answer is “no” and in this set of songs she has produced a work that many may also want, as it is a striking and effective album from an artist with the vision, voice and songs to stand out.
Speedbuggy USA Kick Out The Twang Wagon Wheel
An album to warm the heart of anyone missing the raucous rakishness of cowpunk. Speedbuggy USA are back with a thirteen track album of hardcore twang that announces its affiliation with the seminal debut of the MC5 with a similar attitude of no compromise. Not that it is without its airier moments such as the opening cover of the Monkees The Last Train To Clarksville. Then it’s largely a mix of hell-for-leather devil-may-care moments that recall the likes of Jason And The Scorchers and The Beat Farmers .... bands who understood where they were coming from and where they were going - which is more than some of the “country” bands lost in Hair Metal do today.
Opening with a vocal chorus Get Around leads to a solid rockin’ workout, while the next song Shaky Town puts more emphasis on the country side of what they do, with some steel underscoring the sense of movement that is prevalent in many of the songs. Between those two points of twang and fang they display their clear ability as musicians. Timbo and Seth Von Paulus trade tasty guitar riffs throughout the album, also notable for the talents of Brady Sloan on bass, drummer Jamie Dawson and Gregg McMullen playing pedal steel. These guys kick-ass as they tell the stories of tortured minds, devils inside and returning from the road.
But they can also handle recriminations and regret as they do on the ballad Sorry. Long Gone shows they can strip it back when needed, with mandolin taking the lead. Honky Tonk Singer is another slow paced reflection of a wasted life. The song is laced with pedal steel again adding to its sense of loneliness. The album’s second cover is the Bobby Sharp written Unchain My Heart, first recorded by Ray Charles and given a impassioned and (lost) soul inflected delivery here. All this shows that within their chosen field of vision Speedbuggy USA are adept at delivering some engaging music. They do so with energy, conviction and cussedness that shows that even after numerous releases this band is far from spent and making their best music to date. Long may they keep kicking out the twang.
Lyman Ellerman I Wish I Was A Train Woodshed Resistance
The album opens with Bigger Plan that I find not unlike one of the better Dire Straits tracks. It is a good introduction into the Americana world of Lyman Ellerman, a singer songwriter who has been through a lot of pain during his life not least due to the death of his son. His son was a drug addict and Ellerman has turned that hard journey into a song. The Addict takes a hard look at how the condition can devastate the person caught in the web and all those around them. It was written by Ellerman and Larry Brake who added harmony vocals on the recording. It is given a bluesy reading with co-producer Jason Morgan adding some telling guitar on the track, as he does throughout the album. The album is essentially Ellerman and Morgan providing the music behind Ellerman’s expressive voice.
The album is balanced between the songs that are shrouded in dark thoughts and those which express light and hope. This is not Ellerman’s first album by a long stretch and he has honed his craft since he first picked up a guitar in his teens. He is joined by Jessica Dooley for Nobody Knows You (Like I Do) which finds both sides recognising the true nature of the other. Ditches tells that if you wander off road you may never get back on track. Because Of You again is a slow blues that conveys that the only reason to get up in the morning is because of her. Shinin’ On Elizabeth is a tribute to love and its redeeming powers. The Stranger is an atmospheric story song that has a cinematic quality with spoken voice, insistent drums and raging guitar. One More Drink is an acoustic take on another self destructive lifestyle. Here Comes Tomorrow closes the album with the possibilities of a new day and a new beginning with some upbeat guitar and a persistent vocal chorus “Here the good times, here comes tomorrow.”
This album represents who Ellerman is at this time in his life - the Nashville based singer songwriter who through the years has tried to reflect in his writing some of the harder aspects of life and death (which has seen him lose a lot of those close to him). The end result is a record that deals with some of those issues but does so in a way that offers understanding and insight - something that is often in short supply in the mainstream music that graces the radio today. Time, perhaps, to get on board.
David Starr South And West Cedaredge
Though recorded in Nashville with a crew of local session players, including the renowned pedal steel and electric guitarist Dan Dugmore, David Starr’s latest album does not fit with the current mainstream output - rather it crosses into an number of areas including country, folk and 70’s country rock. Not that these songs are without accessibility. Maybe You’re Not The One feels like a song that you already know. Written by Starr and Robby Hecht it could easily be a hit in the hands of a major label artist. The songs stand up to repeated listening without ever feeling like total classics. Starr has written the majority of these songs on his own but also some with such notables as Irene Kelly. She also joins him on harmony vocals on their co-write Don’t Give Me Hope. Starr produced this album which recalls a past that is rooted in bands like Poco, The Eagles and others who played melodic flowing country rock.
The songs largely deal with relationships, many looking at what could have been and what still might be. Listen to Night Rolls Around, Love Won’t Make Itself or Good As Gone in which Starr consider these options. In Until It’s Gone he sings of breaking nine of the Ten Commandments, and it’s only a matter of time before he breaks the tenth but he’s going his own path no matter what. If Nothing Changes takes a harder look at the direction society is taking in these days of fake news and fake attitudes. The lyrics have a certain poetic quality that sit with the overall musical setting.
There is one cover included which makes perfect sense of the overall mood and that is the Bernie Taupin/Elton John co-write Country Comfort. It fits as a reference point to a time when country music was neither traditional nor outright pop. As the title suggests, this albums brings together two places and times. David Starr lives in Colorado but also has a foothold in Nashville. The inspiration of birth places colours the overall mood - a mood that some will dismiss as not fitting with either the harder edged outlaw country movement or the more crossover pop/soft metal that dominates radio. That hardly matters for Starr who has made the album he wanted to.